Clockwork and Clock-Watchers

Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) delivered another sprint win today, but that faint noise you heard wasn’t the tick, tick, tick of his clockwork reliability in the sprints. It was the click, click, click of fans changing the channel or moving on to the next Web site out of absolute, mind-numbing boredom. With any luck, a few of them will tune back in by the time the race hits the Alps in a week’s time.

Viewed in isolation, Tuesday’s Stage 10 was just one of those things that happens in almost every grand tour, that day when nobody feels like racing and other motivations, like GC, are lacking. Granted, a decent portion of the peloton had a bit of a bee in their bonnets about the ASO/UCI team radio ban, but word was that there was no coordinated slow-down in place. And if you’re protesting but won’t admit it, it’s not a terribly effective protest. Regardless of motivation, yesterday’s stage was one of those that makes you question your will to live, or at least your will to watch bicycle racing on television. It happens.

But in the context of this tour, Stage 10 may just be the straw that broke the camel’s back for fans who were on the fence about whether they wanted to follow the race closely or not. Faced with a GC battle that’s gone nearly nowhere for the entire first half of the race, fans had just about convinced themselves that they could seek solace in enjoying the individual stages. Until yesterday. The fact is, individual stages will never hold the excitement of a one-day race, because, well, there’s always tomorrow to try again, and the long-term motivations of a grand tour will always continue to influence – and often deaden – the action on the road. The really troubling thing about yesterday’s stage, though, is that the race isn’t likely to get much better until the race hits the Alps next Tuesday, and another week of rolling around, even considering what could be some decent transitional stages, is a bit too long. Sure, this Tour’s final week could be a real barn-burner, but will anyone still be awake to notice the flames?

There will be, of course, those that claim yesterday’s action, or inaction, was not just a normal, slow day, but rather the result of the decision to suspend use of team radios for the day. They’ll argue that since teams had slower access to information, they gave the break almost no leash in order to play things safe, and that this, surely, will be the shape of things to go if radios are eliminated for good. But those people would be wrong.

A single-day experiment like yesterday’s, particularly on a flat stage with no natural selection points, was just something to be endured, not any indication of what would happen if radios were permanently eliminated. Teams could just sit in and relax, keep the break close, and play it safe, secure in the knowledge that everything would be back to normal tomorrow. Like I said yesterday, if radios axed for good, racing would undergo an uncomfortable adjustment period, where many races could indeed look like yesterday’s. But after that, after everyone realizes that only sprinters will win if the break never goes away (and only a few teams have sprinters that can win), after they realize that riding to keep the race together over hilly terrain will kill everyone by the 80th kilometer, and after they realize that fans will only tolerate slow racing for so long, the sport will adapt. After all, 20 years ago, there was some good, tactical racing, and despite the absence of radios, they never decided to just all hang out together and keep it at 38 kilometers per hour. Once riders are used to racing without radios, with the slightly different techniques and tactics that requires, they’ll go back to racing again.

Race Radio
  • Stage 10 may have been 188.5 kilometers of sheer torture, but the last 5 kilometers were fantastic. During the stage, there was talk that Garmin was going to try to beat Cavendish by going extra-long for the sprint – like from 700 meters. That’s more of a late-race attack than a sprint, but I was shocked when, in the final kilometer, Tyler Farrar (Garmin) appeared to be going for it on the overhead shot. He blew through the Columbia train and seemed to knock Cavendish off his wheel through a few of the closing curves. Then, mysteriously, he seemed to yield Mark Renshaw’s wheel back to Cavendish and then slot in behind Thor Hushovd (Cervelo). If he gave the longball a shot and just didn’t have the legs, then nice try – if what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to try something else, and he did. It didn’t work out, but you know you’re not going to come around Cavendish, so why not? You can see a bit of it here starting at about 2:28. [Correction -- Thanks to commenter Martin for pointing out that it was Garmin's Julian Dean breaking up the Columbia train, with Farrar glued to Hushovd for the duration. Still a nice example of Garmin trying a different approach.]

  • Cavendish, Hushovd, Farrar. What’s happened to the other fast guys? Looks like Danilo Napolitano (Katusha) headed for home last night, and Oscar Freire has been shut out so far, and Danielle Bennati (Liquigas) has been near invisible. Sure, they're somewhere to be found behind the three listed above, but haven't made much of an impression challenging for the win, save Freire on Stage 6. Tough business to be in these days.

  • I’m not one for goofy victory salutes, but I was O.K. with Cavendish’s talking-on-the-phone victory salute in his last stage win since it was an homage to a generous new sponsor. The sunglasses thing yesterday was just pathetic. Not only is it going to get him slapped with the “cocky” label again, it looked like he forgot about it until after the line, remembered, then clumsily almost dropped his green Oakleys, leaving them to be trampled into dust by the peloton. Well-executed showboating can be entertaining. Poorly executed, not so much.

  • On yesterday’s Versus coverage, American viewers were treated to a premier Phil Liggett senior moment, during which, for about 30 full seconds, he repeatedly misidentified Italian Pippo Pozzato, who is famous and rides for Katusha, as Belorussian Yauheni Hutarovitch, who is not famous and rides for Francaise des Jeux. Or maybe he called him Horrach, who at least rides for Katusha – by that point, I was getting a little confused myself. Anyway, Pozzato looked to be removing an undershirt, or was just sorting himself out after relieving himself in someone’s lawn, who knows, but the camera was on him and him alone for quite awhile. If the hair, race number, Katusha shorts, Italian champion stripes on the helmet, and the enormous “Only God Can Judge Me” tattoo across his back wasn’t enough to I.D. him, I don’t know what would be.

  • No French win on Bastille Day this year, though with the Tour success the French are having so far, I doubt they care. One thing’s for sure, though – now that the two “little” French teams, BBox and Agritubel, have both netted significant victories, the pressure will be on for Cofidis and Francaise des Jeux to show something, and quick.